In the summer of 1959, when I was 13 years old, I practiced diving almost religiously at the L-shaped pool at the back of the small tennis club three blocks from where my parents lived in Sacramento, California. It was a great summer! Looking back, all that practice, that discipline, may have had to do with making sense, making peace, with the body that was growing too fast, in ways that surprised me; trying to master and make peace with that growing mystery. Part of it also might have been learning to be a teenaged pack animal – most of my friends at the tennis club that summer were doing the same thing. But at any rate, alongside of some tennis, a good part of my days were spent practicing a swan dive, a jackknife, and a cannonball (which I was quite proud of). I decided against trying a cutaway dive when a friend's attempt ended up with knocking out four front teeth on the diving board. Instead I worked to master, in increasing order of difficulty; the half gainer, the backflip, and the full forward somersault.
Learning the half gainer wasn't too hard after I reconciled myself to the fact that I would often land painfully flat on my back, leaving a large red mark, until I got to the point where my feet finally hit the water first. I used my height to make the backflip work; flailing in a way that, if not elegant, was effective in turning me over in the middle of the air and generally completing a full backwards somersault. But the forward somersault was a different matter. I couldn't just jump forward and let the momentum of the dive carry me over: instead, I had to jump and rise as if I were going into a jackknife, then tuck my arms and head into a ball and propel myself quickly enough so that I could turn over in time to meet the water fingers first. It was not easy at all.
And I kept coming back to this memory, this teenage liturgy from over 50 years ago, when I was reading and rereading John's Gospel for this morning. What is Jesus trying to tell us in this reading? What is the center, what was the destination, why is it such a difficult teaching, how do we dive into the living water here?
But John's Gospel constantly points to this hard-to-grasp possibility, that Jesus points to as an actuality, that the very word of God - there from the beginning, creating, ordering, redeeming the universe - has come to dwell with us, literally pitching his tent with us, in the middle of human being. And that we are called to incorporate him into our being by partaking of him, by eating his very flesh and blood.
This teaching was not easy at all for his disciples, or for any Jews of the time. Cannibalism was forbidden, and for someone to be touched by human blood was to be defiled, and here was Jesus calling his friends and followers to, literally, drink his blood, to gnaw on his very flesh.
These tough teachings are typical of John’s Gospel. In many ways this conversations resonates with an earlier one with Nicodemus in Chapter three; “Unless a man be born again he cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven” When Nicodemus protests at physical impossibility, Jesus points to a spiritual reality where the "wind blows where it blows" and where the spirit comes where it will, where God's will will be done. And that confounds Nicodemus, “how can these things happen?.” And I think it confounds us as well.
So while we’re chewing on this improbable possibility, no less than Nicodemus wondering about being born again, Jesus goes on beyond us. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that were spoken to you are spirit and life.”
But what if learning to take in the substance and spirit of Jesus's life, the body and blood of his teaching, is a little like the way I learned to tuck my body into a very small place in order to turnover : this momentary conversion, so that I could move quickly in the middle of the air and complete that difficult dive; ending up as I would with a regular jackknife, but with this wonderful revolution in the middle.
There was a song popular in the middle 1950s that began, “Pretend you're happy when you are blue, it isn’t very hard to do, and you will find happiness without an end whenever you pretend.”
Sacraments are not like this: the water of baptism, the rings at a wedding, laying on of hands at confirmation or ordination, the oils of healing or unction, the very bread and wine we gather ‘round today, have nothing of pretense or magic about them. But they are actions which open us to be aware of the reality of life and death and resurrection in Christ's world. They are occasions, times when we move carefully and take heed, where we take in the possibility that all life is holy because God is here and he has pitched his tent in our very midst and has come to be our friend.
In the late 1960s, some 10 years after my disciplined diving summer, I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, the American Anglicans. The poet Philip Larkin says we come to church to “take ourselves more seriously” and there was a bit of that. But there was also a great hope opening in me, responding to a half heard, half hoped-for call, that the universe might mean more, might be leading me in love, in a way that I could not quite believe, but could almost reach out and touch, and wanted to dive into; and three passes of water on my forehead began that journey
Jesus says we must be born again of water and the Spirit. Jesus says we must incorporate his body and blood into our lives, Jesus says we are called to be his friends: and that is what we are here for; to act that out here, so that we can live that out everywhere.
Going back to the diving board: what I learned there was something about discipline and dedication, a willingness to learn, a growing sense of commitment to seeing it through, to moving towards the right action, so that I could take a jump, turn around in time and come home at the last. In that way the forward somersault was a kind of sacramental preparation for the waters of life.
It is a bit of a dangerous opportunity,like those sacramental moments: the refreshing water, the bread and wine, the hands on the head, the rings shared, the blessings given, the journey begun. And we can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting that these moments of refreshment and renewal all point outward to remind us of our larger life, our deeper ministry in the world.
But what we do here moves us in that direction, towards that revolution, for Christ has said he will be here, in his self-giving, in sharing his body and blood, substance and spirit, in imparting his purpose and passion, that we may be members of his body,; a body of belief, of action, of compassion, people brought together by the spirit in love to be love: to be a city on a Hill, to be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world. Amen.